Saturday, December 13, 2014

Auntie Attentive

They say the name you give a child grows to become a part of their personality. I know this is true for Auntie Attentive, who lived with us for the first few years of my childhood. My aunt would notice the tiniest speck of stain or tear on the clothes she picked to buy. She'd notice the little smudge of chocolate spread at the corner of your lips that you forgot to wash off, or the strand of hair that your hairband missed to pull up. When we pull out the fat photo-albums for a trip down memory lane, there are only two photos documenting her presence in our childhood. In one of them, she is in a park with my sister, their noses and cheeks frozen red. The other, she is in one of our birthday parties, sitting in a corner, looking lovely and smiling shyly. She was never one for being photographed.

I remember feeling constant fascination with the way Auntie Attentive structured her life- on her own terms, without having to flex them for the unpredictable speed of life. I woke up everyday to the soft jingles of her bangles against each other as she exercised. I'd sit up in bed and watch her, how she moved up, down, left, right without ever going out of breath. My favourite exercise to watch was one where she'd catch invisible tennis balls in the air. I'd giggle and try to catch her attention, but she was so focused on what she was doing I'd soon give up.

My sister and I went on with our days, and never managed to see Auntie Attentive ever free. She was always doing something. Sometimes she'd be busy reading a book, glasses perched, with a pen in hand making side-notes in a writing pad. Sometimes she'd be cooking, cutting lemons, mixing spices, browsing for ingredients in the cupboards. Sometimes we'd go into the room and see her lying down with round cucumber slices covering her eyes. She had a way of giving equal importance to every activity she engaged in, which made her always look busy.

Our favourite time of the day was bed-time, when she was in the mood for telling stories. She told us of King Suleiman and how he spoke to animals, of the brave Ali who pulled open the heavy gates of Khaybar... and sometimes, she would sing to us. Rhymes that we never really understood, but left behind an inexplicable feeling of tragedy:

Mama Najiya
Take these hand-cuffs off me
Have a bit of mercy on me..

It never occurred to us to ask why Auntie Attentive was staying with us, why she wasn't married with a family like all our other aunties. Auntie Attentive was in fact married. Her husband was in a prison miles away for a crime he never committed, accused of 'betraying the country', just one of the thousands of innocent souls who spent years behind bars at the hands of Iraq's old regime.

Auntie Attentive eventually re-united with her husband. Prison had changed him. He had a lot of catching up to do. He had to repeat his education, going back to high school. The old and untouched degree he had wasn't worth anything now. He had to go through all the stages of university graduation to internships to finding a job, but with greying hair. She stayed strong and supportive throughout.

As I grew up and started to understand the things around me better, my fascination for Auntie Attentive has been replaced with deep-rooted respect. For her unwavering strength. For the letters she read from her imprisoned husband in secret, never breaking down in front of us. For her recognition that life goes on. For the way she filled the emptiness she felt from not having the children she had always longed for- with busy, scheduled, productive days.

Auntie Attentive is seven hours away from me by plane, but I bet you I can tell you exactly what she's up to now. She is either in the kitchen, rummaging through cupboards; on her desk, reading a book with glasses perched and making notes; or catching invisible tennis balls, the bangles on her arms clinking softly.




Monday, September 29, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

It's been long since I've spilled beans on here. The past days have been a breath of fresh air. Days and nights have come to me empty-handed. I've filled them bit by bit and in no rush, making appointments with God, my soul, the sun, the sand, and the vast, unharvested fields of my mind. I have also been growing up with Maya Angelou- smelling in the scent of Grandmomma's store stacked with tobacco, ketchup bottles and tinned sardines... moving around with Bailey Jr from new home to new home across cities... living her hopes, fears and threats... and cheering her on as she transforms from a self-loathing little girl to a lady.

_________________________________________

It is 1936. A little Maya holds her bloodied mouth in one hand, the other hand clinging to her Grandmother, who drags her across in steady, strong steps. Little Maya's teeth are rotting, the pain is blinding, and her Grandmother walks on, meaning business. They stop at the dentist's door. Sure, they're black and he's white, and a white dentist would rather die than stick his hand into a black mouth. But this is Grandmother, who lent him a hand when he was going through some pretty rough times. He wouldn't say no to somebody who owes him a favour now, would he?

Little Maya and Grandmomma go back the way they came- except with a bloodier mouth, and steps not as steady or strong anymore.

__________________________________________

It is 1941. Eighth-grade Maya stands proud in middle-school graduation robes. Grandmomma's store is closed, a dress the product of weeks of night stitching and sewing flows under the robes, and an excited Maya waves at her family in the audience between her class-mates. It's an important milestone for all the kids standing on stage, and for the sweating family members waiting patiently in the crowd. It's a day that signifies possibility- the hope that, someday perhaps, their hard work could pull them out of the state they're in today- some day, armed with their education, they will transcend all the layers of ceilings placed above them.

But in comes a suited white man, says a few words on their hard work, how the girls can maybe sew or stitch better now, how the boys can have a better basketball field the coming year..and with those words, he leaves with the air of going off to somewhere more important. Bubbles of hope pop all around, because they have all heard his real message loud and clear: stay in your place.

___________________________________________

It is the 21st century. You and I still have a story to share. Maybe two, three. Maybe as a victim, or maybe simply a witness. Civilization may have advanced since those times, with new laws and new social norms. But people the world over are still being treated differently because of their colour, gender, beliefs, appearance, social background... There remain to be nations with entire under-privileged minorities. There remain to be millions of positions holding incompetent people because they had a flashier name, passport or bank account. You and I can change this. We are human- not capable (yes, not capable!) of ignoring differences or removing the stigmas that have unconsciously leaked in our heads through media. But very much capable of looking beyond the differences and the stigmas, to treat people for who they are. You and I won't change the world- we will change the little worlds around us. And together, help the caged bird's song be heard.

___________________________________________



Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Noise

Imagine this. Every word you say tattoos itself onto your skin. No amount of scrubbing can take it off. You can keep your tattoos hidden under big jumpers and gloves, but your words will be screaming back at you every shower you take, and when you tuck yourself in bed, you'll read your body like a bed-time story. You'll stare at all the conversations you've ever had and wonder when and how did all the years amount to such junk.

Remember computer-science classes at school? Back in the days before the internet stopped being a phenomena and before two-year-olds and eighty-year-olds had discovered it. Define data, the exams went, and define information. "Information is data with meaning," we were told to write. How much of all the words, accumulated throughout your life and now decorating your body, is meaningless data?

I thought about this and did a tiny experiment. Collected all that I said over the month of May through facebook and whatsapp messages. Let's assume the two mediums I chose are a representative sample of all I have said over the month. (Any minion out there willing to take down every actual word I speak to solidify this experiment?) I tried to sift through the mount of words and filter out the noise (with the help of Tagul's word cloud generator).

The result?



Which is why, my dear readers, we are lucky not to live in a world where words tattoo themselves on our body.





Friday, April 18, 2014

Refine me

Dear God,

Help me rise above all the little things, Move around my sight, hearing, thinking until they are where they're meant to be. Teach me all the lessons I need to be taught. Let me see everything through You, and if that takes turning me inside out,  watering me down, squeezing me painfully to cleanse off my filth, and letting me dry in thirst, so be it. Refine me.



Monday, March 17, 2014

To work with love

Khalil Gibran says:

'Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.


And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.


And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.'



It's not easy. When you leave early, come back late and all you have in between is a few hours of sleep where you can't escape swimming numbers and looming deadlines in your dreams. When all that seems to matter is quantity and not quality. When hard work without hustle and bustle remains unnoticed. When hours, days, months go by behind a screen slowly dehumanizing you. When the deepest conversations heard are about which cars are driven by whom, and where the best (and most expensive) places to dine can be found. When there is no trace of appreciation for the beauty of words, thought, and all the million other components that make up each unique personality that exists on this earth besides how much work can be squeezed out of them.



Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ways to count the dead

By Persis Karim, poet and professor at San Jose State University

"Keeping track of the Iraqi death toll isn't the job of the United States," a student said,

"and besides, how would we count the dead?"

Take their limbs strewn about the streets -

multiply by a thousand and one.

Ask everyone in Baghdad who has lost

a brother. Cousin. Sister. Child - to speak
their name in a recorder.

Go to every school, stand

at the front of the class, take roll:
for every empty desk, at least two dead.

Find every shop that sells cigarettes -

ask how many more cartons they've sold this year.

Go to the bus station and buy ten tickets -

offer them free to anyone who wants to leave.

Go see the coffin-maker. Ask how much

cedar and pine he's ordered this month.

The dead don't require much. They don't speak

in numbers or tongues, they lie silent

waiting- to be counted.





The War- Painting by Taha Malasi

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Uncreative writing (or re-purposing!)

stuck here
on noisy, incoherent, thuggish earth
is a tribe of lousy carpet weavers
trying to pattern their lives

it's not violence alone in the air
he fell for a mexican dancer
she searches for the mother who left her
an old woman she resembles

they say here, it's not for the kiddies
but this kid's applied for a job as an angel
a job dark, demanding
and he's already keeping busy
with a city making heroes of gangsters

---------------------------------------------------

How does the above poem sound to you? I wrote it, but you can argue that it is no creation of my own, because it is simply a mash-up of phrases taken from the 'G' and 'A' lists of a Movie Encyclopedia- a list of film titles and a one-line description of their stories. Conceptual poetry may not be everyone's cup of tea, but in the words of the Creative Writing professor who inspired this poem, 'writing has got to get up, make a move on and catch up with the changes of times.' An artist in 1969 said: “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Well, the world is full of texts now- vast, unbelievable amounts of texts, and according to literary critic Marjorie Perloff, our notion of 'genius' is outdated. The changes brought on by the Internet mean it is no longer about what additional text you add to the world, but around the mastery of the incredible amounts of information available to us and its dissemination.

There is a course in the University of Pennsylvania called 'Uncreative Writing'. Students are penalised for showing any shred of originality. They re-type what has already been written, improve on it. They present essays written by other people and defend the arguments the essays hold. The result? By suppressing 'creativity', the students produce the most creative works. Because it is impossible to repress self expression. Even the way you reframe a piece of writing, what you chose to work on and how you chose to refine it, tells as much about yourself as a piece originally written by you.

What do you think?


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Snippets from 2013

It's my grandmother's bed-time and it's going according to schedule. Like everything she does in her life. We lift her from her seat at exactly ten. At the sink, she takes off her dentures, soaks them. 'Did I take off my dentures?' she asks. 'Yep,' we answer. She washes her spotless, lovely-smelling hands in the same way, soap bar trying hard to slip away from her thorough scrubbing. 'I washed my hands?' 'Yes'. Once she is lying down in bed, I kiss her goodnight, wondering at the mystery of old age. How that re-emergence of childhood dependency blends gracefully with the demanded respect of elderliness, gracefully enough to make this dependency dignified. Before switching off the lights, we tuck her in, throwing the blanket over her. It covers her face for a second before we pull it away. Antin her helper finds this hilarious and bursts out in loud cackles. When my granny's face re-emerges, it's grinning- a toothless, beautiful grin.

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Noddy and I bond over books, junk food, life questions, beauty care and silence. Today it's a combination. We're munching on flaming hot cheetos with our orange-powdered hands, big glass of water in the other. We look at the muted television screen without really looking- the sound of our crunching filling the room. When we're done, we down the remaining of our glasses, end the ceremony with a satisfied 'Ah' and sit there for a while with our full bellies in appreciative silence.

Later on, she watches me squeeze a honey-covered lemon slice on my face and lets me do the same to her. 'It's good for our skin' I tell her, and she believes me like she always does, just asks how long we have to keep it on. I brush her silky hair that doesn't need brushing while we wait, and she asks me her latest questions on life- why some people are social and others aren't, why I'm scared of animals and why the friends in the book she's reading have arguments. 'You're the perfect sister,' she says, but the truth is that she is perfect, with her round, curious eyes and her all-time trusting soul.

----------------

Awesomeness has another name- Skoon. You will never meet anyone quite like her. We're at her baby shower and she tumbles in, pregnant belly, still not ready. 'What do I wear?' she moans, before getting distracted and changing the subject. In Skoon's world, randomness and spontaneity rules and there are no protocols about ways people are supposed to behave. It's two hours into the baby shower and nothing has actually happened yet, but everyone is having a great time. Skoon moves around a natural ease, bonding with each of her guests without making any effort, spilling her thoughts and feelings on a tray and handing them to you as raw as they are.

I go to visit her at the hospital a day after she's given birth. Nothing can change Skoon and her down-to-earthness, not even hours in painful labour. 'Hi!' she says animatedly, eyes screaming fatigue but voice unchanged. We look down at her adorable little girl with red cheeks and puffy eyes. She giggles- 'When will she wake up, man?' Skoon was trying to take selfies when she was giving birth. I told you she's awesomeness. I don't stay long, leaving her to rest and bond with her baby. On the way back, I can't stop picturing how much fun Skoon and her girl will have growing together.

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If there was a measuring device for positive vibes, graduation ceremony halls would win. I have never seen so many truly happy people at once. We march inside looking ridiculous in our blue hats and gowns- to a hall buzzing with the pride of parents, professors and friends. They watch us move around and go up stage with smiles that crease their teary eyes. When the cooped-in parents are finally released, they mix in with the blues. Everywhere around, mothers are crying and hugging their kids. I lean in to kiss mine, and we take a million pictures. There is enough happiness in the air to energize a nation. Then we group up and take that obligatory picture, the one where we throw our hats off. It's a symbol of the end of my academic life- that lovely, comforting world. Over the past three months since I have started working, I have had a lifetime of experience. From keeping confidential the sensitive information of some of the largest firms in the world, climbing fuel tanks, counting in locked warehouses to meeting new people- the inspiring, the weird and the ugly- and struggling to remain diplomatic in a politics-infested world. Some days are good, some not so good, but each one brings me so much more to learn, and though it hurts to wave goodbye at the dreamland period of my life, it is exciting that the real life has only just begun.

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